How to Get a Commercial Drivers License
A commercial drivers license, or CDL, is separate and distinct from a standard drivers license. Standard licenses authorize motorists to drive private passenger vehicles, only. A CDL license authorizes motorists to drive commercial vehicles. These include passenger vehicles, such as taxis or buses, as well as cargo vehicles, like tractor trailers and trucks carrying hazardous materials. Motorists are typically motivated to pursue CDL certification as part of their employment. Workers in a wide range of employment fields and industries may find that they need CDL licenses to fulfill their assigned job duties, or to qualify for new or preferable types of employment.
Like other licenses, commercial drivers licenses are issued by individual states. Motorists must attain certification through their home states, and may not hold more than one truck driver license at a time. In addition, CDL license holders may require specific endorsements in order to legally drive certain types of commercial vehicles that transport designated groups of people or materials.
Minimum CDL license requirements and standards are set by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). Individual states may add supplemental rules and limits to the licensing process. Nationally, applicants must be at least 18 years of age to apply for commercial drivers licenses, and no less than 21 years of age to drive commercial vehicles across state lines.
There are standard CDL requirements currently in place for application and testing. These include:
- Passing written knowledge tests.
- Passing driving skills tests.
- Submitting medical documentation.
Applying for – and keeping – truck driver licenses is also typically dependent on applicants establishing and maintaining clean driving records. Under federal CDL license requirements, motorists may be disqualified from receiving licenses, suspended from driving or stripped of their licenses for:
- Drug or alcohol violations.
- Leaving the scene of a vehicle accident.
- Commission of a felony.
- Being involved with a fatality while operating a commercial vehicle.
- Committing traffic violations in either commercial or private vehicles.
- Loss of private (standard) drivers license privileges.
- Impermissible use of mobile phones or devices while driving.
Note that individual states may impose additional CDL license requirements at each motor vehicle department’s discretion.
How to Apply for a CDL Permit
The first step to acquiring a CDL license is to apply for a CDL learners permit. Motorists must generally apply for a CDL permit in the states in which they legally reside. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration recommends that prospective applicants begin by obtaining copies of their states’ commercial drivers license manuals and familiarizing themselves with their states’ specific rules.
In most cases, however, getting a CDL permit requires motorists to learn general topics. These include:
- Determining which kinds of commercial vehicles they need – or desire – to become certified to drive.
- Establishing which class of license they will need for those purposes.
- Deciding which endorsements, if any, they will need.
This information allows motorists to choose the best training and practice options for their needs. Under CDL permit requirements, applicants must typically submit:
- Ten years of driving records.
- Evidence of a passing a DOT physical (or other state-approved medical qualification documents).
- Proof of identity
- Proof of residency.
- Payment of the associated fees.
CDL permit rules do not allow motorists to operate commercial vehicles independently. Permit holders must be accompanied at all times by certified CDL license holders.
CDL Written Test
CDL permit holders are required to wait at least 14 days after obtaining their permits before sitting for any commercial drivers license testing. CDL written test procedures vary from state to state. Some applicants will be able to take an online CDL test at a designated DMV, while states may require applicants to take written tests.
The CDL general knowledge test must be taken and passed by all applicants seeking any class of commercial license. Additional written tests may apply, depending on the type of CDL being sought, including:
- A passenger transport test.
- An air brakes test.
- A combination vehicles test.
- A hazardous materials test.
- A tank vehicle test.
- A doubles/triples test.
- A school bus test.
Individual state manuals can provide insight into the number and nature of CDL permit test questions.
CDL Training Schools & Practice Tests
Motorists are encouraged to engage in several different types of CDL prep before sitting for written or skills testing. Common test prep options include:
- A review of the CDL handbook.
- Completing the CDL practice test questions found within state handbooks.
- One-on-one CDL training with qualified instructors.
- Attending a CDL school.
Note that some states require motorists to attend CDL training schools or otherwise document training hours in order to sit for exams.
How to Get a CDL License
How to get a CDL can vary slightly between states, depending on individual state requirements. However, in general, motorists can apply for CDL licenses at their local DMV service centers. In addition to a completed CDL application, they will need state-mandated medical documentation demonstrating that they are physically qualified to apply. They may need to sign a waiver permitting a search of their driving records, as well.
In some cases, students who attended a CDL training school may receive assistance in the application process from that school.
CDL Driving Test
Motorists must pass the CDL general knowledge test and any other specialized written tests required for their desired license classes or endorsements before sitting for a CDL driving test. The skills portion of the CDL test incorporates:
- A vehicle inspection test.
- A basic controls test.
- A road test.
Some states allow applicants to use visual or training aids, such as checklists, for certain portions of the testing process.
How to Get a CDL as a Military Member
Several nationwide programs promote military CDL training in an effort to reduce the barriers of getting a commercial drivers license for servicemembers and veterans. The Military Skills Test Waiver Program, Even Exchange Program (Knowledge Test Waiver) and a prototype Army program, based in Fort Knox, all assist Active Duty servicemembers in exchanging their military credentials for CDL credentials.
Depending on the program and applicants’ military credentials, servicemembers may receive waivers for the written portion of CDL testing or qualify for CDL licenses with no civilian training or testing at all. A CDL for veterans can provide attractive post-military service employment options.
CDL Medical Exams
New DOT physical requirements recognize the key role commercial drivers play in the safety of America’s roads. As such, they mandate that all CDL license applicants be examined by a licensed medical examiner certified with the FMCSA.
Most CDL medical exam results are good for two years, unless the examiner conducting the exam intentionally denotes them as valid for a lesser time, due to medical conditions under ongoing monitoring. Exact CDL physical requirements can vary slightly from state to state.
Types of CDL Classes
Commercial drivers licenses are available in three classes. The CDL classes are divided based on the types of vehicles and cargo that drivers desire to operate. They are further – and generally – outlined as:
- A Class A license authorizes motorists to operate a combination of vehicles with gross weight ratings of 26,001 or more pounds
- A Class B CDL license allows drivers to operate single vehicles with gross weight ratings of 26,001 or more pounds, or such a vehicle towing another vehicle – so long as the total weight remains below 10,000 pounds
- A Class C CDL license permits motorists to operate passenger vehicles intended for 16 or more persons or vehicles transporting hazardous materials
Which type of license an applicant pursues is informed by his or her intended type of employment, post licensing.
Types of CDL Endorsements
In addition to receiving the correct class of license, motorists may need one or more CDL endorsements to legally drive the commercial vehicles of their choice. Common endorsements include:
- Double/Triple Trailer endorsement (T)
- Passenger endorsement (P)
- Tanker endorsement (N)
- Hazmat endorsement (H)
- Combination tank and hazmat endorsement (X)
- School bus endorsement (s)
Interstate vs. Intrastate Commercial Drivers Licenses
Intrastate CDL licenses are for motorists who only plan to operate commercial vehicles within their own states of residence. This may include, for example, bus drivers working regular city or school district routes.
Interstate CDL licenses apply to operators taking commercial vehicles across state lines, such as long-distance trucking teams. Operators working primarily within a single state must still have interstate CDLs if:
- They cross state lines at any point while driving between two points in the same state.
- Their cargo or passengers passed – or will pass – into, or through, other states as part of a total trip.
Commercial Driving License Fees
CDL license cost will vary between states and types of licenses. Applicants must refer to their home states’ manuals or Departments of Motor Vehicles for details. Typically, price listings reflect permit, license and endorsement fees, as well as the cost of changing CDL classes, if desired.